Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

Loving their enemies

Religion | A Christian ministry working with Israeli doctors treats nearby Muslim children and adults one heart at a time

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

Hezhan is a shy but determined young man from Kurdistan in northern Iraq. For as long as he can remember, his daily life has been limited by a heart condition that kept him from attending school and engaging in most physical activity.

That changed last year when a Christian ministry based in Jerusalem sponsored a trip for Hezhan to visit Israeli cardiologists. Their hope: that they could perform life-altering surgery for him. Their prognosis: not good. Most patients with Tetralogy of Fallot have surgery during early childhood, and at age 22 Hezhan had complications that could hinder an effective procedure.

The doctors could see that Hezhan had put extensive hope into the prospect of an operation, and they were afraid he might die of a broken spirit without it. They sent him home with medication and told him to come back in a year to see whether his condition had improved enough to be a good surgical candidate. Weak and oxygen-deprived, he returned with his parents in July. This time, doctors were surprisingly hopeful-Hezhan qualified to undergo a complicated operation on four cardiac malfunctions.

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This is the unique mission of Shevet Achim-bringing children with heart problems (and a few older patients like Hezhan) from war-torn Iraq and Gaza into Israel for lifesaving operations with some of Israel's finest pediatric cardiologists. Christians from around the world staff the ministry and coordinate expenses, visas, travel into Israel, and the many treks from the home base just blocks from the Old City to Wolfson Medical Center near Tel Aviv.

The ministry goes beyond logistics. The staff at Shevet Achim live together with mostly Muslim mothers and children as a community. They eat together, cry together, and pray for healing.

"I think the power of these encounters is the message, 'You are valuable,' delivered to people who've been treated as worthless their whole lives. Desperate parents are watching their precious child die an agonizing slow death before their eyes," Shevet Achim coordinator Jonathan Miles said. "Then the grace of God bursts into the hopeless situation: life from the dead, unconditional love, mediated through those I've been told are my enemies. There's a lot of good news in this."

Doctors weren't sure that Hezhan would survive surgery. It was his second visit to Israel, and the Shevet Achim staff and physicians at Wolfson Medical Center had grown to love this young man and the gentle spirit of his parents. After a 10-hour operation he was wheeled into ICU past his parents, whose faces flooded with relief. The road to recovery would not be easy, but their son had survived.

The doctors who perform these surgeries are part of Save a Child's Heart (SACH), a nonprofit that reaches out to children who wouldn't otherwise have access to qualified cardiologists. Out of 450 children treated at Wolfson each year, 40 percent are SACH patients.

I asked Akiva Tamir, the head pediatric cardiologist at Wolfson and one of SACH's founding members, if he ever witnessed a shift among doctors' or patients' perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through this program. "It's a tough question," he replied. Half of Shevet Achim's patients are Palestinians: "We continue to build the program through times of war and times of peace. ... I have many Palestinian friends now, and this is progress."

Kristina Kayser, a nurse from San Diego who is the primary post-surgical caregiver for Shevet Achim, said she sees both Israeli doctors and Muslim parents looking beyond politics: "It's almost as if what's going on within the walls of the hospital is like a different world. If you didn't know there was an Israeli-Palestinian conflict going on just miles away, you wouldn't guess it from the interactions and experiences we see in the hospital."

The patients who come from Gaza have to stay in the hospital for the duration of their visit due to visa restrictions. The Kurdish families, such as Hezhan's, may return to Jerusalem where they live together in Shevet Achim's historic building on Prophets Street until they receive medical clearance to return home. This is where the deepest relationships often form. Those volunteering as short-term staff have language barriers but are able to minister by entertaining children or wrapping their arms around a sobbing mother. One volunteer described the ministry as "raw, unpolished living." Grief and worry are constant companions.

But so is celebration and thanksgiving. Hezhan's journey ended on a triumphal note: After weeks of recovery and several complications, his fifth echocardiogram revealed a restored and fully functioning heart. He can live a normal life.


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